HL Deb 24 January 1978 vol 388 cc273-6

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government on what grounds the UNCTAD conference of one hundred developed and developing nations was suspended on 1st December, thus terminating its proceedings.


My Lords, the second session of the United Nations negotiating conference on a Common Fund was suspended on 1st December 1977 at the request of the developing countries—the Group of 77—in the absence of agreement on the Fund's scope and financial structure. The developed countries of Group B, in expressing their regret at this decision, made clear their readiness to continue the negotiations as soon as all groups can agree to do so. In his concluding remarks, the chairman of the Conference, Ambassador Walker of Jamaica, commented that the Group of 77 did not regard the suspension as a final breakdown; and the Secretary-General of UNCTAD has subsequently been invited to undertake consultations with a view to a resumption of negotiations at an early date.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister, as always, may I ask him this? Is he aware that many of us were deeply disappointed that the British representative should not have identified himself with seven Western European countries and should have identified himself with the three hardliners, the United States, Japan, and Germany? Is not the real issue here whether the Common Fund should have comprehensive functions for co-operation rather than becoming just a banking agency?


My Lords, my noble friend has not, I think, put quite correctly the grouping within the conference. It is true that the United Kingdom, when the final statement was made, was in association with what my noble friend has called the "hard-liners", the United States and Germany, but this was the opinion of a majority of the developed countries. The developed countries which were dissenting from that view of Group B as a whole were the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. I agree that the position of those countries was nearer to that of the Group of 77.

As to my noble friend's second question, of course a main part of the issue is about the functioning of the proposed Fund and the sources of its finance. But it is a view, which I think my noble friend would do well to study, that the existing range of agencies in the United Nations, including a recently established agricultural development agency, is capable of doing many of the things that the Group of 77 would want this common Fund to do. It is not that it is to be just what my noble friend calls a banking organisation. There is an important point of view that I think perhaps he would do well to examine further.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that I shall be returning to the broader subject in a Question tomorrow? Meanwhile, may I ask him this. Cannot this very important matter be considered at Cabinet level so that when the Commonwealth Ministerial Conference meets on this subject we may not be in a minority, as we have been before? Is it not important not merely to raise the standard of life in the Third World but, by increasing its purchasing power, to reduce unemployment in this country?


My Lords, I of course understand that my noble friend is likely to pursue this matter, and it is certainly not for me to decide what matters are considered by the Cabinet. However, I assure him that the attitude of the United Kingdom to this question of the Common Fund has been considered at the very highest level and given the most serious consideration. I do not think at this stage that I can go further than that, except to say to my noble friend that I am with him, as indeed are the Government, in wanting to do all that we can to help the dew loping countries lift up their living standards. If he will consult, for example, the recent White Paper on public expenditure he will notice there that the Government are putting those sentiments into practice for the coming years.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us when there will be available to this House, and to Parliament generally, either an analysis or an approximation of the costs and benefits to the United Kingdom of the Common Fund in the form in which it is presently proposed? Secondly, will he assure us that we will not in this round of conferences do what we did at the last; namely, defend our right to reject the principle—in that case of the Common Fund; in this case of the second window and the source fund—to the last possible minute and then, when all good will has been lost from the other side, suddenly give way on it?


My Lords, I do not think that that is fair. It is true that the position of Her Majesty's Government was what might be termed nearer to a hard-liner position if one looks at the situation a year ago, but we should not underestimate the change of emphasis in our policy and the acceptance during the North/South dialogue of the principle of the Common Fund, and the fact that we have put forward, together with our associates in Group B, practical proposals for the implementation of the Common Fund, which we have accepted.

As regards the noble Lord's first point, he will understand, from the suspension of the negotiations at the moment, hopefully to be renewed as soon as preparations can be made, that this is not the time for the laying of papers explaining the position. I shall take note of his anxiety that as soon as possible Parliament should be informed of the position, but I would assure him that the position of the negotiations is not yet at that stage.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that the British Mission and our delegates there—the men who deal with this matter in the British Mission at the United Nations—are men of exceptional quality with long experience, and that there is no need at all to pass this over to Cabinet level, because they would have to rely upon the experience of the people at the United Nations in dealing with it?


My Lords, I appreciate what my noble friend says about the quality of our representatives. I think my noble friend Lord Brockway, in raising this Question, was just anxious that the matter should be considered at the highest possible level, and I gave him that assurance.


My Lords, would my noble friend advise noble Lords that they can obtain information from the utterly inspired report of their own Select Committee on this vital question, and that in its report that Committee in fact advocated that Britain should be a little more forthcoming so far as the Common Fund is concerned?


My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend has called attention to that report, which we had the opportunity of debating. However, the comment in the report—and he was a member of the Select Committee—was in relation to the United Kingdom's attitude in March last year. As I pointed out in answer to other questions, that attitude has changed, and I would hope that the Select Committee, if it were now meeting, would comment favourably on that change of emphasis.